Love or survival

Working, as I currently do, for a large company which interfaces with startups always brings up the question among people of whether working for a startup or a large corporation is the best type of job. But over the years, I’ve started to think that to compare big vs. small is the wrong approach and that the better question should frame whether you love what you’re doing or are doing it for survival. Here’s why.

Why big vs. small is not the right model

Whenever people in startups bring up the question, there is usually a suspicion that large corporations are evil environments. A lot of people who are in startups are taking refuge from the type of drone-like jobs that can, at times, exist in large organization.

I’m not going to come to the defense of such jobs but I started having second thoughts about that approach once I put my mind to what happens when a startup grows up and becomes a large corporation: how does one handle such transition and how does a company retain its best talent when it becomes larger.

Some companies (Google, for example) look to perks as a way to attract people: free food, entertainment, etc… Those are great but I suspect that ultimately, they are not the thing that retains talent. Business Insider recently ran a feature story that covered the balance of perks vs. employee happiness this week and it appears that the perks are not enough to keep morale up.

At the same time, there can be a lot of fun for employees in large companies when they ship a new feature on an existing product or a brand new product because the impact that product or feature has on the market is magnified due to the company’s pre-existing track record. For example, people in the tech community may not be excited about Windows 7 but people who worked on it have already had an impact on tens of millions of customers. That can be quite a rush.

What was interesting is that all the companies listed were large companies. Startups didn’t seem to be on the list of 25 best tech companies to work for. Did that mean that startups are not good companies to work for?

No.

Startups have a lot of excitement as the contribution of every employee can have a marked impact on where the company goes as a whole. It’s a pretty awesome feeling but, on the other hands, startups can be all-consuming, with long work hours and sometimes frustration if a company is not getting traction. Life in a startup is no easier than it is in a big company, just different.

So having established that startups and large companies have both advantages and disadvantages, it seems that using that model can’t work when a transition from one state (startup) to the other (large company) happens.

Do you love the job or the perks?

With that in mind, I started getting suspicious of people who look at perks as the most important thing. I was recently talking to R. , a former co-worker at a startup, who was telling me about a friends of ours who went to work at Apple. He told me “he was tasked by Steve Jobs to come up with this product and deliver it in only a few weeks and he did. So they sent him and his family to Disneyworld.”

What was interesting to me in the statement was the first part: this person was given a seemingly impossible task (deliver big product on what seems like an impossible schedule) and achieved it. The second part was much less interesting but when I recounted that to someone I know at a large company, his focus was on the reward.

For too many people, unfortunately, the reward is all that matters. J., a employee in a large corporation that has existed for over a century, was chatting with me about recent defections to a competitor: “you know it’s going to be the same kind of problems at the competitor so why not jump if the compensation is better. They (meaning companies in that established industry) are all the same.” Unsurprisingly that person does not love the job.

Similarly, I was talking to D., who is currently involved in the early (just post-seed financing) stage of a startup. D. had been a senior executive in a very large corporation for many decades. He was telling me about his frustration in the startup: “what I love about a job is the work of convincing people that something is a right idea. In this startup, I propose something and everyone seems to agree it’s the way to go and so we go do it. It’s not as much fun.” Later, D. told me that he was being compensated mostly on equity and that it would be a really amazing compensation package once the startup reached a liquidity event. Once again, this is a person who’s not enamored with his job but who’s looking at the compensation as the reason to stick around.

What it comes down to is that, for a lot of people, the compensation matters a lot more than the work. In “The Paper“, one of Ron Howard’s most under-appreciated movies, Robert Duvall plays an editor and, at one point, he says:

Most people don’t care about what we write. They go to work to pay their mortgage and put food on the table but they don’t give a damn about what happens in the world.

At the time, this made quite an impression on me because I considered it to be a very cynical view of the world. But, as time has gone on I have bumped into a lot of those people, in both small and large companies and what I’ve found to be the biggest differentiator between a valuable employee and one that’s just filler is that the valuable people are the one who love what they’re doing.

A person who loves his or her job carries that love like an infectious disease and eventually spreads it to other people. For example, I was recently chatting with someone who works for the New York Sanitation department. That person’s job is to deal with how to best dispose of New York City’s garbage. Now, most people would think (and I admit I did before chatting with that person) that garbage is the most boring subject in the world. But the person was so excited about this job that, after a few minutes of conversation with the person, I started to get excited about garbage.

I’ve met doctors, accountants, regulators, sales people, engineers, and taxi drivers who spoke in glowing terms about their respective jobs and position and what I’ve discovered is that even the most mundane and boring subject can turn to magic in the hands of someone who loves his or her job.

For many years, in interviews, I’ve asked people the following question: “imagine I gave you $100 million with no strings attached today. What would you be doing then?” It’s amazing the number of people who answer about something different than the job they apply for. The ones that don’t, or that provide some kind of variation on what the job duties are, are true gold and have never failed to exceed my expectations (and I have high expectations).

So ask yourself today: do you love what you’re doing? And if you don’t, are you doing it just because of the compensation and perks? If you’ve answered yes to the last question, it’s time to start thinking about what job would get you to answer yes to the first because I can guarantee you that if you fail to answer yes to the first question, the compensation and perks will eventually evaporate and then you’ll ask yourself what happened.

Final note: How to survive

When I tell people about this, the main objection is “but the stuff I love can’t pay my bills.” It’s true that not all jobs are as remunerative so there is a transition from being a job survivor (people who do it for the compensation and perks) to being a job lover (people who do it for love). Before taking on that transition, you need to plan for it: do a budget.

Are there things that you’re doing outside of your job to make it more bearable to do you job currently? Are there things that you love doing that could be incorporated in your new “more loved” job? Are there things you could do without. I’m not saying that there won’t be some sacrifices along the way but there is always a better balance.

The reason I tell you to go do the things you love is that, in doing so, you will not only find your work more enjoyable but you will do better work and, with better work, you will eventually see better compensations that will eventually meet and exceed the ones you had in your survival job. I encourage you to to read “Hackers and Painters” for a better understanding of how you could make that transition.

In “Oh, the places you’ll go“, Dr. Seuss put it best:

… there’s a good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go

though the weather be foul

On and on you will hike.

And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems

whatever they are.

And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So… get on your way!

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